Who is afraid of Frida Kahlo?

March 6, 2007 at 4:33 pm (philosophy of the arts)

More by happy coincidence than design, last Thursday I found myself stumbling into the Frida Kahlo retrospective at the Tate Modern. My colleagues and I were in
London for a work-related awards bash and, having time to kill, we decided to brave the Tate. It is but the briefest hop, skip and jump across the
Thames from
St Paul‘s cathedral and smack-bang next door to Shakespeare’s rebuilt Globe Theatre – a prodigy in itself, with what must be the first and certainly the most interesting-looking thatched roof in central
London for centuries.

Anyway, having got there (the Tate), my colleagues – professing their ignorance of Kahlo and her work – settled for the permanent galleries. But me – sensing the presence of serious art – sailed straight for La Kahlo. Truth is, I’d been itching to stand face to face with her canvasses for years. And I was not about to let this opportunity pass me by. Come hell, high water, the occasional bomb or even – for that matter – a poxy old awards ceremony. And the show was a treat. The art critic of The Sunday Times – probably Waldemar Januszczak – recently did Kahlo the great disservice of stating in print that her canvasses looked no different on the printed page than they do hanging on the walls. That was such an insult. And wholly untrue. As those of you who visit the galleries will know, there is simply no substitute for standing face-to-face with the painted canvas. And books-of-the-pictures-of-the-t-shirt-of-the-film do not provide an adequate alternative to The Real Thing.

I could bang on about Kahlo for ages – the narcissism, the physical agony sublimated into and expressed through her work, the tremendous sense of shared humanity, the (genuine or cultivated?) artistic naivety. To put it into the proverbial nutshell, there is no experience in this world quite like standing in the centre of a room with self-portraits of Frida Kahlo lining all four walls, and having them all stare straight at you. I have never felt quite so looked at, nor quite so looked into, for that matter. At one point, I chose to take my attention away from her and look instead at the other gallery visitors. But there was no escape. Whether peeking around the back of someone else’s head, or staring straight through the gap between two peoples’ heads, Frida Kahlo’s gaze would not leave me alone. She looks at you, and she demands that you look back. It really is that simple. Her gaze is challenging; proud in a proletarian sort of way – bordering upon the surly; it is also humorous, honest, direct and very knowing. The self-portraits are the thing. And Ms Kahlo never tired of painting herself. In fact it was precisely because the printed images are no substitute for the painted canvasses that I did not buy the exhibition catalogue. Paintings live on best in the eye of the mind. And I could not, with a book of printed pictures, repeat the experience of standing in the centre of that aforementioned room.

Incidentally, one of the highlights of this exhibition is not actually in the exhibition at all. It is a giant photo-montage of Frida, at different ages and at different stages of her life and career, which covers the whole of one wall of the cafeteria on Level 4 of the Tate. It was there that I found myself staring at the large black and white photograph of a raven-haired and strikingly handsome young man. Was this her brother, I wondered? But no. It was in fact a photograph of Frida herself. Taken in 1926, she had dressed herself from head to foot as a man, for a family portrait. What a rare soul.

Sadly, and probably also because I did not buy the exhibition catalogue, I am largely ignorant of the substance of her life. Although I do have a brief sketch of the outlines. Marxist politics (not my cup of tea); married Diego Rivera, another artist and political activist; suffered, when young, an horrendous accident which left her in constant physical pain for the rest of her days; numerous operations to repair damage done by same; lower right leg removed towards the end of her life; death possibly by suicide.

If anyone who knows more can add more or, indeed, correct my errors – then please do so.

Those of you who can get down to the show, do. And for those of you who cannot, I hope the above has at least given you a flavour of it.



  1. jaoman said,

    There’s a movie Frida staring Penelope Cruz chronicling the life of Frida Kahlo. I saw it less than a week ago. All that you’ve said is hitting right on the money, so I think it may be historically accurate to a fair degree. Also, a hell of a movie. You may enjoy looking into it. But then again, I guess yiu’ve seen it long before we did.
    Your fan, jao.

  2. soniarott said,


    Many thanks for your comment.

    I’m a bit disappointed that more people haven’t contributed biographical information about Kahlo, or their personal views and/or experiences of her work.

    For example, a friend of mine informs me – unreliably or otherwise – that she had an affair with Trotsky. I should imagine that if one moves in left-wing circles (which I do not) this would constitute quite a notch on the old holster.

    The impression I get is that Kahlo has been something of a victim of fashion. By which I mean that she has been overpraised in the past and is, as a consequence of this, somewhat underrated now.

    I enjoyed her work very much – some of the slightly earlier European Surrealist painters appeared to me to have had an influence – and I came away from the exhibition with both an enhanced respect for the artist and a renewed confidence in the potency of paint-on-canvas as a medium for expression.

    The exhibition runs until October, and those of you locals who are inclined towards the arts (and Socrates maintained that philosophy was the highest of the arts) would be doing yourselves a disservice to miss it.

  3. klaatu said,

    Frida is normally lumped together with the surrealists (even in her lifetime), but she wasn’t really influenced by them at all, and her pictures are all personally symbolic, as she said. I believe she was most influenced by indigenous Mexican art (especially a type of small painting on tin).

    Her injury also resulted in a miscarriage, which she depicted later on- you’re sort of right that its better to know her life before you look at the paintings, becausee nothing is arbitrary in them.

    But yeah, you should see the movie- it’s great. I’ve just read a little on her and
    seen that, but it really helped me understand.

    I’ve never had the luxury of looking at her stuff in person, though- but even the reproductions have some value in themselves, and all the symbolic imagery remains the same.

  4. jack said,

    Klaatu wrote:
    ”(especially a type of small painting on tin)”

    Yes – ahem! – there were one or two of these on display at the exhibition. They were quite finely crafted. And one of them contained a miniature self-portrait. It wasn’t quite as good as a Hilliard miniature, but it was quite good enough, nonethless.

    There were also a few quite serviceable still-lives, but as I was there in what was technically-speaking “work-time” I did not spend as long on these aspects of her work as I might otherwise have done.

  5. leucrotta said,

    i remember stumbling across Frida in an early-morning PBS documentary and being facinated by her. what a strange, unique woman! and what talent… very different from anything i’d seen before.

  6. fleur de paris said,

    TO SONIA: I admire Frida Kahlo greatly, both as an artist and as a person, and I urge you to read about her facinating life, and to see the movie FRIDA, starring Salma Hayek, which, as others have said, is excellent. Frida was a very complex person—a free spirit, an individualist, kind, bold (especially for the time in which she lived), and was endlessly PASSIONATE and STRONG. She was a woman of extremes—drank, smoked and loved too much—and became the great artist she was because of her passions and her great physical & emotional pain.

    She had polio as a child, which left her with a limp, and she suffered an horrendus injury in a bus accident when she was 18–was impaled by a steel rod, which caused her to have to live in a body cast for a very long time (it was during this time, confined to bed, that she began to paint) and also caused her to suffer endless health problems throughout her life, ranging from constant, severe pain, inability to bear children, kidney problems, gangrene, and many, many operations. She married Diego Rivera, the celebrated artist and serial philanderer, whom she loved deeply, but she was devastated to learn he had had an affair with her own sister and was forever changed by this indiscretion; they seperated and she began having affairs of her own, including one with Trotsky. Later, they were divorced, which further devasted Frida. Throughout her tortured life, she refused to give in to her depression and pain, pressed on regardless, and was the first Latin American to have a painting, her SELF-PORTRAIT, hang in the Louvre. Frida Kahlo insisted on living life to the fullest and living it HER way, with gusto and good humor, until her body (and perhaps her mind) could take no more, and she died in 1954 at the age of 47. It is not known if her death was due to natural causes, or if she commited suicide, but that is a possibility. It goes without saying that Frida’s paintings give one great insight into the person she was. Frida Kahlo is an inspiration and truly to be admired, both for her strength of character and for the artist she was. Incidentally, the soundtrack for the film is excellent, especially the song ‘BURN IT BLUE’.

  7. jack said,

    Fleur de Paris,

    Yes, I probably ought to see the movie – it must have been recommended to me by umpteen people by now.

    Yes, her self-portraits are very intense and also very direct. As though she was very concerned that those looking at them should come to know her, both directly and personally, through them.

    What is surprising to me is that a person who painted herself as often as she did, should be able to maintain that same degree of intensity in self-portrait after self-portrait. It would seem to me that she never grew tired of the subject. Either that, or she was very concerned to (quite literally) put herself into her work so completely that even after her death people would still be able to know her through the paintings that she left behind. I think that may be closer to the mark.

    And that is a very singular mission to have. Particularly so, when there is no pre-ordained guarantee to the outcome.

    I think there is always going to be an ongoing debate as to precisely what her position is in the ranks of twentieth-century artists.

    But I definitely like her work – for that singular focus and intensity that it has.



  8. Sharanya said,

    In terms of biographical info, I highly recommend you get Hayden Herrera’s “Frida”, on which the film starring Salma Hayek was based. It’s a wonderful book, a biography that comes across as though full of as much love as research.

    Awhile ago, I put up my Frida tribute here: http://sharanyamanivannan.blogspot.com/2006/07/invoking-frida.html. It’s not much by way of introduction, but as far as I know it is most likely to be the most comprehensive source for photos of her on the net.

    I’ll be doing something bigger for her birth centennial this year (July 6th), also.

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